Many Mormons remember where they were on Nov. 5, 2015: the day the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints announced a new policy effectively deeming gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender members as apostates, their children ineligible for baptism.
John Gustav-Wrathall was at his desk in Minneapolis, chatting with a ministry group on Facebook. He wound up staying on social media and talking on the phone the rest of the day as LGBTQ Mormons reeled.
“It had a devastating impact,” said Gustav-Wrathall, executive director of Affirmation: LGBTQ Mormons, Families and Friends, a nonprofit support group. “People were just shocked and horrified and couldn’t believe that actually happened.”
Within two weeks, 1,500 members had announced their resignations from the church.
On Thursday, Mormon Church President Dallin H. Oaks announced that the faith was backtracking from its 3-year-old policy and would allow the children of LGBTQ members to be baptized.
“The very positive policies announced this morning should help affected families,” the church said in an announcement. “In addition, our members’ efforts to show more understanding, compassion and love should increase respect and understanding among all people of goodwill. We want to reduce the hate and contention so common today.”
The pivot comes after years of activism, criticism and outreach from advocacy organizations that have been pushing the faith to liberalize its attitudes toward same-sex relationships and gender nonconformism to correspond with the country’s gradual shift toward welcoming people from such groups.
But the policy change, the church made clear Thursday, does “not represent a shift in Church doctrine related to marriage or the commandments of God in regard to chastity and morality.”
LGBTQ Mormons are still expected to be chaste.
“This is a change in policy, not a change in doctrine,” said Troy Williams, executive director of Equality Utah, an LGBTQ advocacy organization. “We’re not going to see the church blessing same-sex unions or solemnizing them in the temple soon, and it’s not something we’re asking for. But in terms of policy, this is a positive step forward, and we’re hopeful that the dialogue will continue and that they’ll continue engaging with us.”
Relationships between the church and LGBTQ groups have been especially tense since the faith’s campaign to pass California’s Proposition 8, the same-sex marriage ban that was approved in 2008 with heavy financial backing from Mormon donors but was eventually overturned in federal court.
The church’s 2015 policy change “was a punch in the gut — so disruptive to those Latter-day Saints families that have LGBT family members,” Williams said.
Gustav-Wrathall, who is gay and has a husband, had already been excommunicated from the church in 1986. But the policy change threw new uncertainty into his relationship with his father and brother, because it deemed him an apostate — essentially, an enemy of the faith, lost to damnation.
“My father was deeply worried, and hurt, and concerned, and he lost sleep over this,” because he was not supposed to associate with apostates, Gustav-Wrathall said.
Another LGBTQ Mormon recounted to Gustav-Wrathall that a loved one called to say, “This is the last phone conversation I’m going to have with you, because you’re an apostate now.”
A divorced gay Mormon, who had previously been married to a woman, told Gustav-Wrathall that “my wife is suing me for custody of my daughter, because this [policy change] means that our daughter will not be able to have standing in our church.”
“I was being exposed daily to these stories of trauma and heartache and the divisive impact that this was having on families,” Gustav-Wrathall recalled. “I ended up having to go into therapy to deal with the trauma of dealing with everybody else’s trauma on a regular basis. … It was huge; it had a devastating impact on so many people.”
Kate Kelly, a human rights attorney and an excommunicated Mormon activist, attributed a friend’s suicide in 2018 to the impact of the policy change, saying that the woman “really just went into a spiral after the policy was announced and never came back.”
Kelly paused for a moment to cry before continuing.
“The toll that policies like this have are real,” Kelly said. “Sometimes to outsiders it’s difficult to understand why a policy or words on a paper or something so seemingly bureaucratic could have such a negative impact. But these institutions pull on the heartstrings of their members and the families that belong to them.”
The community’s pain and anger, however, renewed an internal conversation among Mormons about the church’s relationship with LGBTQ believers. “It put this issue right front and center, square in front of the noses of every single member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” Gustav-Wrathall said.
As Mormons quit in protest, activists reached out to the church to push for a change. “And to the church’s credit, they listened,” Williams said. “They heard the pain that was being expressed by so many of their members, and they changed course.”
But for some alienated Mormons, like Kelly, the policy change doesn’t begin to repair the damage.
“I’m just heartbroken,” she said, “because it’s too late for many people.”
Joanna Brooks, a church member and professor at San Diego State University, said she stopped attending in 2015 because of the old policy.
"I am seriously considering going back to the pews now,” she said after Thursday’s announcement. “I am a very privileged, straight white woman with children. I can only imagine the hurt it has caused my close friends who are gay and lesbian and their families.”
She said she hoped for an apology from church officials for the previous policy: "Saying we are wrong is a critical part of spiritual growth.”